Through the Eyes of a Child

April 16, 2014
A thought by James Berardinelli

Michael at the LEGO Movie

I remember the first movie I viewed theatrically. It wasn't the first movie I had ever seen - not by a long shot. By the time my father took me to a theater, I was used to watching films (monster movies, mainly) on TV. My initial experience with a first-run feature was in a drive-in: summer 1975, Jaws. I don't count this, however. In the first place, watching a movie in a drive-in is completely different from an inside viewing (especially if you're on a date which, at age 7, I obviously wasn't). In the second place, I only lasted through about the first five minutes. I spent most of Jaws asleep in the back of my parents' station wagon. I have no memories whatsoever of the film from that night.

I was nine years old on a blustery December afternoon when I entered a movie theater for the first time. Why so old? I guess it's because, before late 1976, there was never a film I wanted to see. The mid-'70s didn't offer a hot bed of motion pictures that circumscribed my narrow range of interests: monster movies and science fiction primarily. Most kids my age had their cinematic cherry broken by some sort of Disney cartoon - usually one of the classics. That was an era when Disney routinely re-released one or two of their acknowledged greats every year. So, while many of my classmates could claim Snow White as their first time, for me it was Dino DeLaurentiis' King Kong.

I own a copy of the film and occasionally defend it against its detractors. King Kong is not great cinema but it's a lot of fun - a combination of high camp, intentional humor, and derring-do. Jessica Lange looks great (even though her acting is atrocious), Jeff Bridges takes his role seriously, and Charles Grodin plays the whole thing with his tongue in cheek. The special effects vary from decent to hideously bad and some of the editing is unacceptable, but John Barry's score is exceptional (among the best of his career). Today, there's something a little weird about watching the finale considering the real-life fate of the building Kong climbs.

My nine-year old self lapped it up. I loved the movie even though I saw it only once during its theatrical run. (The next time I would see it was three years later when it made its network TV debut in the now-coveted two-night "event" version that incorporated more than 30 minutes of deleted scenes.) To this day, I don't know how much of my adulation was due to an affinity for the material and how much resulted from the first-time experience of sitting in a movie theater. I was a little too old to be awed by the inside of the 500-seat auditorium (the complex was either a duplex or a triplex - I don't remember which and it has since been redesigned to accommodate more screens), but I was impressed. My father, who sat next to me, was probably more interested in assessing my reactions than watching the movie. The 1976 King Kong has always played better to boys than men.

All of this is prologue to the real reason I'm writing this. When my son Michael was born, my initial intention was to wait until his fifth birthday before taking him to a theater. When it was announced that Star Wars Episode VII: J.J. Switches Franchises was going to be released in 2015, I thought that might make a great first experience - until its release date was pushed back six months. Recently, however, Michael has exhibited a growing interest in movies. He has watched the Toy Story series, Monsters Inc., Despicable Me, and their sequels, and a few others. When we visited LEGOLand this Christmas, he sat in rapt attention watching a "4-D" short. Before that presentation, there was a trailer for The Lego Movie and Michael informed his mother and I that he wanted to see it.

I decided to wait until the film was a little past its prime. That would assure less-than-full houses and reduce the potential that unacceptable behavior could lead to a disruption. (I'm a firm believer that the moment a child begins misbehaving during a movie, his parents should remove him immediately. Common courtesy, if nothing else, demands it.) We took him to the closest theater - an AMC multiplex that has been refurbished into one of their elite theaters: wide body leather recliners, expanded concessions, reserved seating (although, thankfully, no in-theater dining).

Having already seen the movie, I could devote the majority of my attention to observing Michael. His initial reaction to the theater was bewilderment. He wasn't frightened or intimidated but now he understood what it meant when his father said he's "going to the movies" (something I say two or three times a week on average). He was hungry so his mother did something I never do: visited the concession stand. She returned with popcorn and water. He amused himself by playing with the recliner control button.

When the trailers began, he placed his hand over his ears and said, "They've turned it up to '14'!" He was right - it was loud. The actual movie held his attention for about 45 minutes then he started getting restless. It wasn't to the point where he might distract others (and we were in the back row) but he ended the movie by sitting on my lap for the last 20 minutes. In the end, my assessment was that, at a few months shy of four years old, he's still a little too young. Or maybe the film wasn't suitably juvenile for him. Nevertheless, the next time we passed the theater, he remarked: "That's where The Lego Movie is playing. I decided I want to see it again." My response: "When it comes out on video. In two months."

What will his second movie be? The jury is still out. Pixar doesn't have anything arriving this year and none of the animated sequels are from franchises he likes. But second movies don't have the same impact as first ones. I can't remember what mine was. There was something between King Kong and Star Wars but I don't know what it was. Star Wars opened a flood gate for me. After that, I started seeing movies on a regular basis. Maybe it will be the same for Michael with Episode VII.

I have often argued that the act of watching a movie in a theater isn't as communal as it's made out to be. Each of us sees something different. We bring our own experiences and prejudices to a showing; that in part explains how different people can love and hate the same film. We think of viewing as a passive act but movie-going is more interactive than we give it credit for. I can watch something like The Lego Movie by myself in full "critic mode" and come away with one set of impressions. Then I can watch it sitting next to my son and, by reading his reactions, I can see the production in an entirely different way. Children don't watch movies quite the same way adults do.

After taking Michael to see The Lego Movie, I thought a little about King Kong. Perhaps my father wasn't as indifferent to the movie as I always suspected. Maybe seeing it through my eyes, he gained a measure of my enthusiasm for it.